Metaphors and Mental Models
October 15th | 2015

I enjoyed Alan Cooper’s recent article in Fast Company on the (seemingly endless) death of design agency” debate.

Not as much for the actual article itself but more for the specific metaphor he uses to describe the role of an external design company in helping transform a company:

The lever to move a company must be long and its fulcrum must be external to the organization. This is the role of the independent design firm, which is needed now more than ever.

His point, an external company can exert a larger force and “move” a company further than trying to lift that company from within.

While I agree that outside perspective is invaluable, I have trouble with the metaphor used.

What happens if the external force is no longer applied? Won’t the company simply come crashing back down to the ground?

Why is the external design firm acting with no help from the company itself? If the goal is truly transformation and all of the impetus for transforming is external rather than internal, isn’t it doomed to fail?

Why is transformation an act of force? Can’t transformation be something that is welcomed?

It got me thinking that there are many other metaphors that could have been used instead. An external company could be a virus that infects its host and spreads new ideas like a disease. The role of an external design company could be to plant seeds and till the soil so that transformation can take root and flourish.

Each of these metaphors carries with it a different mental model which would probably inform a different approach. Each has a completely different semantic and emotional value which could dramatically impact the outcome. If that’s the case, it’s important we select metaphors carefully. They aren’t simply “figures of speech” they are also drivers of action.